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Professor Val Williams

Professor Val Williams

Professor Val Williams
BA, M Ed, PhD

Emeritus Professor

Social Science Complex,
8 Priory Road, Bristol BS8 1TZ
(See a map)

+44 (0) 117 331 0971


I am a Disability Studies researcher with key interests in ways of conceptualising change in policy and practice, on the terms of disabled people themselves.  I am privileged to be an executive editor of the international journal Disability & Society, a post I have held since 2007, as well as Head of the Norah Fry Research Centre since 2013. I have worked for over forty years with people with learning disabilities (intellectual disabilities) in various capacities, always with a view to promoting and facilitating people’s own voices. My reflections on the links between policy, practice and change in Intellectual Disability are contained in my latest book (Williams, 2013).


My current work lies largely in the field of personalisation, choice and control, and spans a wide range of individuals, disability groups and intersections of identity. Disabled people in the UK, across Europe, and internationally still face many challenges and barriers, including institutionalisation, prejudice, poverty and injustice. I believe that research can address and help to change lives.

Two central themes come together in my research, both represented in my 2011 book, Disability & Discourse. These are:

a) Inclusive and emancipatory research: including disabled people as active researchers;

b) Analysing naturally-occurring communication.

My research about communication and interaction falls within the field of applied conversation analysis (CA). I have presented at the two most recent international conferences in CA, and have an upcoming panel at the International Pragmatics conference in Antwerp in 2015. CA is a disciplined research approach which aims to reveal the basic order of interaction that underpins social life, and as such is open to exciting developments to be applied to real interactional problems that face disabled people of all ages. For instance, what happens when frontline support workers interact with people with dementia? How are medical practitioners equipped to understand their encounters with people with intellectual disabilities?

These are just some of the questions that still need to be addressed in Disability Studies research.




My first career was in education, where I was a classroom teacher in special schools during the 1970’s. This introduced me to a vast range of individuals with learning disabilities, as well as their families and supporters, all of whom helped me to learn. My second career, during the 1980’s and 90’s was in Further Education, where I worked with people with learning disabilities, as well as other disabled students of all ages. I was active in introducing and supporting inclusion for disabled students across college, and my final post there was as cross college disability co-ordinator.

I joined Norah Fry Research Centre in 1997, as a research assistant on a project about family carers (‘In Their Own Right’; Wililams and Robinson, 2000).  I also carried out my PhD during this period (Williams, 2002a) which was an analysis of discourse based on an inclusive research project with people with learning disabilities.  I am now a reader in Disability Studies, and Head of Norah Fry Research Centre. My research output includes projects about the following topics: 

  • families and carers
  • direct payments support
  • work and employment issues
  • community based day activities
  • mental health support needs of young people with learning disabilities
  • financial issues for people with learning disabilities
  • accessible information
  • Further Education for young people with learning disabilities
  • commissioning for new forms of support
  • communication skills of personal assistants, in working with direct payments users with learning disabilities

I am the PI for an ongoing project for the School for Social Care Research about the experience and practice of social care assessments, in which we are taking an inclusive approach, and are collecting naturally occurring data about practice. I am also the PI for a large study which has just been funded by the ESRC, entitled: 'Tackling Disabling Practices: co-production and change'. We will be starting in April 2015, and plan to interrogate a range of theoretical ideas about practice, in order to find out more about how change can happen, on the terms of disabled people themselves. 



Working with other colleagues in Norah Fry Research Centre, I have developed and lead an MSc programme, which is now linked with other Research Methods programmes in the department. We are known for the inclusion of people with learning disabilities as co-tutors, and a shared, interactive learning environment. We explore key themes in research, from the point of view of Disability Studies, with a particular focus on people with learning (intellectual) disabilities. 

MSc in Disability Studies: inclusive theory and research       

    Development of programme, and programme director
    Core units in: Inclusive Research with disabled people;
    Participation in Policy Making; Including Students’ Voices

PhD supervision

I am particularly interested in supervising dissertations which have a Conversation Analysis component, and have supervised the following PhD students:

Dr. Marcus Jepson -  Who Decides?  A Conversation Analysis study of the Mental Capacity Act in practice.

Dr. Barbara Coles -   An (Auto) Ethnographic Study of Parents who manage direct payments for their sons or daughters with complex needs.

Dr. Liz Tilly -  Money, Friends and Making Ends Meet: an inclusive study with a group of people with mild learning disabilities. 

Dr. Jon Symonds - A Conversation Analysis of telephone conversations to recruit parents to parenting groups.

I have also supervised eight D Ed Psych doctoral students, and 

I currently supervise seven PhD students, and two D Ed Psych students, in these topic areas:

* Citizenship and quality of life in Korea (Hyunhee Park)

* Young people with intellectual disabilities in India (Tim Marshall)

* Bereavement support for people with learning disabilities (Victoria Mason)

* Inclusion of students with learning disabilities in an FE College (Neale Fox)

* Participation in a self-advocacy setting (Debbie Worrall)

* Day services and day activities for people with learning disabilities (Daria Koeller)

* Further Education and Educational Psychology (Laura Mennell)

* The transition pathways to college of young people who are looked after (Lise Hill)





Two central themes have dominated my research. These are: a) inclusive research: including disabled people as active researchers; b) analysing naturally-occurring communication. During my time at Norah Fry Research Centre, I have developed and pioneered methods for including people with learning disabilities as researchers, and have made central contributions towards theorising this new ?paradigm? of research. My other central interest is in communication. My thesis brought together my two central interests, as it explored and described inclusive research as a social activity, using the tools of discourse analysis (DA) and conversation analysis (CA). My more recent work on ?Skills for Support? (Williams et al., 2007) is recognised as significant, since it questions the nature and relationship between researcher and researched, and the practical implications of discourse research.

  • inclusive research
  • disabled people
  • disability
  • communication
  • learning difficulties
  • research
  • discourse analysis
  • Memberships


    School for Policy Studies

    Research centres

    Recent publications

    View complete publications list in the University of Bristol publications system

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